Introverts’ Revenge: The Language Learning Perks of Being a Wallflower

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There is a common myth, that introverts are seen as less talented at languages because they prefer reading to speaking. As a language teacher and learner myself, I must say I disagree with that. I think that introverts are the samurais of foreign languages, and I’m going to tell you why. (Before you continue reading, I would like to inform my readers that the views in this article are intended for educational purposes only, and that I don’t claim to be an authority in the field of psychology studies. These views are based on my personal experience, and you are free to have your own opinion on the topic. If you do, feel free to reach out in the comments!) Let’s start with a quote from Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts:
"Extroverts are more likely to take a quick-and-dirty approach to problem-solving, trading accuracy for speed, making increasing numbers of mistakes as they go, and abandoning ship altogether when the problem seems too difficult or frustrating. Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately."
Wham! That is a bold quotation to begin this article with. Everything Susan Cain says applies to introverts when they’re learning a foreign language. Introverts tend to think before they speak, have better long-term memory, stay focused longer, and persevere in the long run. In the end, they tend to speak and write more accurately.

That Person with Flawless Pronunciation? I’ll Bet My Coffee She’s an Introvert

I see introverts as samurais of language learning. They’re the quiet ones, the ones you don’t notice… until they start speaking. Have you ever been in a situation where a foreigner starts speaking the language (French, for instance), and the local people go exclaiming: “Votre accent est incroyable! Où avez-vous appris le français ?” (“Your accent is mind-blowing! Where did you learn French?”). I bet a coffee that this person is an introvert. Yes, she might well be! You might be surprised, but introvert language learners tend to have better pronunciation of the language than their extrovert counterparts. Is it even surprising? Extroverts tend to care more about communicating something, while introverts care more about how they communicate.

The Big Myth: Extroverts are Better at Speaking Other Languages

There is a popular belief that says that extrovert language learners perform better in speaking, while their introvert counterparts perform better at listening. As a forever-language-learner myself, and a language teacher, I’ve found that my experiences don’t support this claim. Speaking a language is not about just speaking; it’s about speaking so that other people understand us, so that they feel familiar with us, so that they care about what we have to say and so that they want to continue the conversation with us too! As a French teacher, I make it a priority during lessons to help my students develop an authentic French accent and natural intonation so they’ll fit in when they socialize in France. I also encourage them to pursue an interest in French culture, as it helps them understand the local people’s reactions and attitudes and have better relationships with the French, in particular with the Parisians! By the way, if you plan to visit Paris and you haven’t read yet The Bonjour Effect by my friend, author Julie Barlow, run to your bookstore… It’s a must-read on the topic of codes of communication in France. I recommend it to all my new students. That was a big digression. Getting back to our topic…

Wallflower Power! The Strengths of Introvert Language Learners

Introverts are so gifted at learning languages. They can focus on situations that require long stretches of attention. As a result, deciphering the grammar of a new language and memorizing vocabulary is a cakewalk! By experience, as I wrote earlier, I have seen that my students who are introverts can speak better and with a more natural accent that their extrovert counterparts. Do you find this surprising? The reason is because they pay so much more attention to details and, as you know, details matter.

Introverts LOVE Reading (and Listening)

If you are an introvert, do you crave chunks of quiet time for writing, reflecting, reading novels or even surfing the web in your target language? The benefits of those activities are tremendous. Listening to conversations helps you understand spoken language better and spot how different grammatical rules impact the sequence of words and phrases. In other words, you’re better equipped to ‘hear’ grammar. And because you listen more than you speak, you can grasp words that otherwise go by too swiftly in the conversation – thus, enriching your vocabulary. On top of that, you’re likely to prefer smaller groups and deep conversations, and use them as opportunities to practice speaking. When conversing, you may tend to avoid mistakes by choosing the right words carefully before opening your mouth.

The Extrovert Plateau

Most interestingly, while introverts keep making progress until they reach fluency, extroverts tend to reach a plateau at level B1. Extroverts may feel more happy and fulfilled from communicating in their second language, and they may socialize more quickly. But they also tend to have a strong accent, that they can’t (or don’t feel the need to) get rid of. They tend to reuse the same words, and they don’t feel the need to enrich their vocabulary as long as they can get by in most social situations. In my opinion, this happens because introverts tend to be perfectionists. They keep striving to get better at what do they do... although (and you may contradict me), extroverts care more about communicating, and may get stuck at an intermediate level, with no motivation to make progress as long as they can get by and reach their communication goals with the locals. There are some exceptions, however. For instance, one of my American students, whom I’ll call Bryan, is one of my most brilliant students and probably one of the most extroverted people I’ve ever met. He is a wonderful socializer, comedian and poet at the same time, and if I must admit that pronunciation was not his strength at the beginning, he bluffed me after a few months by focusing relentlessly on his French accent and making incredible progress.

Not All Cultures Favor Extroverts (As American Culture Does)

I would like to add as a side note, that if one culture favors extrovert attitudes (for instance, American or Brazilian culture), other cultures may favor an introvert mindset (for instance, French, Japanese or Russian culture). So depending on the second language that you learn and the foreign country that you plan to visit, you may want to adopt a quieter or louder attitude. It can be misleading for the French when they learn English, because depending whether we visit the United Kingdom or the United States, we have to renew from A to Z our verbal communication. Can you believe that? We learned one language at school (“English”) but in the United States, we speak louder than usual and be more expressive (affirming our extrovert side), while in the United Kingdom we have to adopt a more hushed verbal style. It’s still English, though! So if you are learning French, then it is good to develop your introvert and perfectionist mindset. If you are learning Spanish, take time to know about the local culture of the country that you’d like to visit. The Spanish-speaking world is so diverse! Most importantly… be yourself :)

Just Enough for that Extra Lift

The truth is that learning a language doesn’t require you to be an effervescent extrovert. This is especially true if you learn French, because French people are usually reserved and wary of extroverts. On this topic, see my earlier note about cultures of introversion and extroversion around the world. As you know (I know you know) introverts also tend to make fewer connections, but ones that are much deeper. Language practice is ripe at that level. For that reason, you may benefit from connecting with an instructor, whether online or in person. A long one-on-one conversation on a smart topic that engages you with your teacher is such a pleasing (and efficient!) way to make progress in your second language. Plus, good teachers are skilled at making new students more comfortable. You’re in good company, and the long-term company of a teacher-confidante can make all the difference. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, a middlevert or an outtavert (or who knows, just a vert?), you are reading this article because you love learning languages. We are GOOD at what we love doing, so keep learning languages, and revel in them!

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